Washington Evening Journal
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A federal ruling Monday from the Southern District of Iowa Central Division Court ordered the state to stop enforcing a law signed in May that banned schools from requiring face masks for students and staff.
District Judge Robert Pratt said the law violated federal disability law, disproportionately endangering students with various medical conditions.
“Some medically vulnerable and disabled children are unable to wear masks,” Pratt wrote in the ruling. “Universal masking is therefore especially critical in protecting these children … Plaintiffs have shown that Iowa Code section 280.31’s ban on mask mandates in schools substantially increases their risk of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19 and that due to their various medical conditions they are at an increased risk of severe illness or death.”
Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement that she planned to appeal the decision.
“Today, a federal judge unilaterally overturned a state law, ignored the decision by our elected legislature and took away parents’ ability to decide what’s best for their child,” she said. “We will appeal and exercise every legal option we have to uphold state law and defend the rights and liberties afforded to any American citizen protected by our constitution.”
Until then, with mask mandates once again valid options for schools, education officials reported a wide range of reactions to the ruling.
Washington County schools waiting to act
School administrators in Washington County said they planned to wait on mask policy discussions for now, each for different reasons.
Washington Superintendent Willie Stone said the district was collecting and analyzing data on building positivity rates before bringing the discussion to the school board.
“We’re collecting data to see where we’re at,” Stone said. “Once we have the data to make an informed decision, we’ll go and talk to the board about it, if the board wants to go back to mandating masks again or leave that decision up to our parents.”
Stone said a special meeting before the regularly scheduled one next month was a possibility.
“If it’s more than a week before, probably so, if not then we’ll probably wait for the next board meeting,” he said. “I don’t have a timeline of when that will be at this point in time, but whenever we do have a meeting, there’ll be a discussion about it.”
Mid-Prairie School Board President Jeremy Gugel said the district had not yet determined if it would discuss mask rules, as it didn’t yet know the duration of the court’s ruling, a factor that would likely effect the policy discussion.
“We’re evaluating when we want to have that discussion because this federal ruling is currently just a temporary ban, and being that it’s temporary we don’t know exactly how long it would last,” he said. “I don’t know if there will be a special meeting, but if not, we probably would look at possibly entertaining something at the next meeting, if we decide to go that route.”
Mid-Prairie Superintendent Mark Schneider said he did not want to provide his input on the issue unless prompted by the board.
“I haven’t been asked to make a recommendation, I normally wait until I’m asked,” he said. “In a school district, the school board sets policy, and the administrator carries out that policy. An administrator has to be careful to not put themselves into what the school board is responsible for.”
Highland and WACO Superintendent Ken Crawford said he didn’t expect the districts to revisit their mask policies until remaining legal battles were resolved.
“The thing we have to be careful of is, there’s an injunction to stop the mask mandate ban, but when the governor then takes it to the next level, that could be reinstated quickly,” he said. “That bouncing back and forth, I think, is what would disrupt the educational process even more. I think we’ll see how this all plays out before we make a decision.”
Crawford added that he was disappointed in the politicization of the school issue.
“Unfortunately, at this point politics just plays into the school environment like this, and we’re just trying to keep the obstructions to a minimum,” he said.
Keota school district officials have discussed the issue, and they are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I have had informal discussions with board members, at this time we do not anticipate changing our current policy,” Superintendent Jim Henrich said. “Masks are recommended for staff and students.
“We will monitor our absentee rates and see if any changes need to be made.”
Henry County schools will discuss in the coming week
Administrators from the Henry County schools said they're planning to wait to discuss mask policy.
New London Superintendent Chad Wahls said the discussion would begin on Monday night at their board meeting. He also gave his recommendation.
"My recommendation would be that we follow our absenteeism daily throughout the year just like last year," Wahls said. "When we are getting close to the 10% absence, then look and see how many illnesses are related to COVID and then make a short-term decision if needed."
Winfield-Mt. Union Superintendent Jeff Maeder said that they are not making any changes now, but they will be considering several options to ensure the safety of students.
"We are holding tight right now and not making any changes," Maeder said. "We're currently following the number of positive cases and the number of those quarantining. I've asked the board to be considering some threshold number or percentage on which to consider the possibility of reinstating the face mask requirement."
Winfield-Mt. Union is also looking to bring back mitigation efforts. This includes additional disinfecting of the classrooms.
Mt. Pleasant Superintendent John Henriksen said they plan to continue with the Mt. Pleasant Community School District Board's decision to keep mask optional until further notice.
"We have a special session on the 27th of September," Henriksen said. “I will certainly ask our board president if she wants an agenda item to discuss this. We want to use good data. I also plan to meet with my principals too."
Henriksen plans to further discuss with the board to find an efficient way to present data to the public, but time is needed.
"We have to think through this," Henriksen said. "I just don't know about those things yet."
Fairfield school board to discuss policy Monday
In the Fairfield Community School District, the school board will discuss its mask policy at its next meeting, which is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Monday.
“We will be discussing that at the next school board meeting,” Superintendent Laurie Noll said.
On Sept. 15, the district reported 46 isolation/quarantine/positive cases, with 25 being COVID-19 positive cases.
The number of positive cases was down from a high of 28 that the district reported on Sept. 13.
Fairfield started the month of September with 13 positive cases, and the numbers have been on an upward trend from there.
In May, before the new law banning mask mandates in schools was signed, the Fairfield school board had voted unanimously to keep the district’s mandate in place until the end of the 2020-21 school year.
Van Buren County, Cardinal have no immediate plans to change mask policies
Van Buren County Superintendent Jeremy Hissem said Wednesday that the district’s return to learn plan already addresses the matter.
Their plan is a tiered approach depending on county positivity numbers.
The district is currently in its “green” phase, which is defined by 38-73 active cases in the county.
The green phase recommends face masks and encourages social distancing.
The next level would be the “yellow” phase, defined by 74-146 active cases in the county.
The yellow phase would trigger a face mask requirement, depending on the status of the state law at that time.
The Cardinal school board met Wednesday to discuss its mask policy, but made no changes.
“The board made no changes to our mask policy,” Superintendent Joel Pedersen said. “The policy stays as masks are encouraged but not required for staff and students.
“The board is committed to revisiting the policy at any time and is watching the data closely. The board was also unsure of what will happen in the courts with this issue.”
Pekin, Cardinal ‘in a holding pattern’
Kevin Hatfield, who serves as superintendent of both the Sigourney and Pekin school districts said that he has had communications with members of both boards about the court ruling.
“At this time, we will continue with our return to learn plan following the governor’s mandate,” Hatfield said. “We’re still strongly encouraging masks.”
He pointed out that the judge’s ruling is only temporary.
“We’d hate to go into some big changes with something that may only be temporary,” Hatfield said. “Right now, we’re kind of in a holding pattern.”
He noted that overall illnesses have been relatively low in both districts.
“We haven’t been over the 10 percent threshold of total absences where we would have to notify the county,” he said.